We’ve recently entered the month of November and Penn State football is still undefeated. The last time this happened, the Great Recession was in full swing, the Phillies had just won the World Series (breaking the city of Philadelphia’s 25-year championship curse in the process), and Daryll Clark, Evan Royster, Deon Butler, Jordan Norwood, and Derrick Williams comprised of the vaunted “Spread HD” offensive attack during the 2008 season.
In fact, this is only the fifth time since PSU began Big Ten play in 1993 that they have entered November with an unblemished record. In the spirit of such a special occasion, let’s take a look back at how things turned out during the previous instances.
Record Entering November: 7-0
Final Record: 12-0
SPOILER ALERT: This is the only instance in the B1G era where Penn State entered November unbeaten and stayed that way for the remainder of the season. Fresh off their 63-14 waxing of Ohio State to finish off October, the Nittany Lions went to Bloomington to face Indiana, in a game where PSU saw a 35-14 lead in the last several minutes of the fourth quarter get reduced to a 35-29 win when IU scored on a pair of TD’s, including a Hail Mary and two-point conversion after time had expired.
The Lions then went on to rally from a 21-0 first quarter deficit to beat Illinois on the road, in a game simply known as “The Drive,” securing a Rose Bowl bid with two games still remaining at home against Northwestern and Michigan State. PSU dispatched both the Wildcats and Spartans without too much trouble, setting up a Rose Bowl showdown with Oregon, whom the Lions also took care of business with, earning their first undefeated season since 1986. It remains to this day, the last undefeated season in program history. Had there been a BCS or College Football Playoff in place back then, there is no doubt in my mind PSU would have been favored to win the damn thing.
Alas, they were at the mercy of the sportswriters in the AP poll, and the coaches voting in the Coaches Poll, both of whom used their sympathy towards then-Nebraska head coach Tom Osborne, who had come up just short of winning a national title several times before, to award also-undefeated Nebraska with a No. 1 ranking in both polls, robbing the Nittany Lions of a well-deserved share of the national title. This created a level of resentment towards Nebraska from the PSU faithful, which was finally unleashed eight years later in a nationally-televised primetime destruction of the Huskers under the Beaver Stadium lights.
Record Entering November: 6-0
Final Record: 9-3
This season featured the rare five games in November. After nearly blowing a 17-point fourth quarter lead to Northwestern on the road, the then-No. 2 ranked Lions returned home to face then-No. 4 ranked Michigan as part of a Saturday labeled “Judgment Day” because the respective No. 1 and No. 3 teams Florida State and North Carolina also played that same day. The Charles Woodson-led Wolverines proceeded to pants PSU on national TV in a 34-8 romping in the rain.
The Lions would then go on to shellack an upstart Purdue team on the road and Wisconsin at home on Senior Day before getting annihilated on the road by Nick Saban’s Michigan State squad, 49-14 (in which Sparty had two running backs go over 200 yards rushing). They would then take on Florida in the Citrus Bowl without their two best offensive skill players in Curtis Enis, who accepted a suit from an agent, making him ineligible, and Joe Jurevicius, who was deemed academically ineligible. Without Enis and Jureivicus, PSU’s offense was rather punchless, succumbing to the Gators, 21-6.
Record Entering November: 9-0
Final Record: 10-3
Penn State had already had a few close shaves this season against Pitt, Miami (FL), and Purdue. There was little reason to think however, that they would end up playing with fire against a Minnesota team that while very much on the rise, still had no business beating the Nittany Lions in Beaver Stadium, definitely not one that boasted one of the best defenses in program history led by Courtney Brown and LaVar Arrington in the front seven.
Of course, we all know how that Minnesota game went: PSU sleepwalked through the Noon Homecoming clash and allowed the Gophers to hang around long enough to convert one of the luckiest 4th and long conversions I’ve ever seen (TRIGGER WARNING), which led to Minnesota kicker Dan Nystrom booting PSU’s BCS national title hopes right through the middle of the uprights as time expired.
A hungover bunch of Nittany Lions would go on to blow a 10-point fourth quarter lead the following week at home against Michigan, as Tom Brady led the first of many fourth quarter rallies in his storied career. The Lions completed the 0-for-November month of suck the following week, by losing to Michigan State on the road. A dominant shutout win over Texas A&M in the Alamo Bowl did virtually nothing to make the fan base feel better about one of the worst month-long collapses in program history.
Record Entering November: 9-0
Final Record: 11-2
With three games remaining and ranked No. 3 behind only Alabama and Texas Tech, a road trip to Iowa appeared to be the only thing standing in PSU’s way between their first undefeated regular season in 14 years and a possible BCS Championship Game appearance.
Unfortunately, said road trip to Iowa resulted in another heartbreaking upset loss on a last-second field goal, 24-23 (ironically, the same exact score they had lost to against Minnesota a decade earlier). The Lions would go on to take care of business at home against Indiana and Michigan State to clinch their third-ever Big Ten championship and a trip to Pasadena for the Rose Bowl, where they would help turn USC QB Mark Sanchez into a Top 10 NFL Draft pick en route to a 38-24 loss that was a bigger blowout than the final score indicates.
Record Entering November: 8-0
Final Record: TBD
How will we remember this final stretch of the season when it’s all said and done? It’s unlikely this will end as well as 1994, given the tough road game this weekend at fellow unbeaten Minnesota, followed by a home date with an Indiana team that is playing their best ball since the early 90’s, and a trip to Columbus to take on the Ohio State juggernaut after that.
It’s quite possible however, that the team could knock off Minnesota and Indiana, and have Ohio State be their only blemish of the regular season (Rutgers is barely even an FBS-level football team at this point, so you can chalk that up as a surefire win). Top that off with a win in the Rose Bowl or even somehow a berth in the College Football Playoff and we could still be looking back on this one more fondly than the previous few times the team entered November undefeated. Only time will tell, of course, so buckle up and enjoy the ride...